Monday, January 30, 2012

The Flyers' 25-Year (and Counting) Search for a Goaltender

Since Ron Hextall won the Conn Smythe Trophy in defeat in 1987 as a rookie, the Flyers have had a revolving door in net that continues today, even after the 9-year signing of Ilya Bryzgalov was supposed to stop all of that.

All told, the Flyers have had 30 different men between the pipes since that loss to the Oilers nearly 25 years ago, and not a single one of them has been able to establish himself as the bona fide No. 1 for more than a season or two. Not Hextall, who as a youngster flip-flopped the starting job with fellow youngster Ken Wregget and who couldn't establish himself as the guy consistently enough in his second go-round. Not high-priced free agent John Vanbiesbrouck, who eventually lost his job to rookie Brian Boucher and never recovered. Not the eccentric, temperamental Roman Chechmanek, who couldn't keep his emotions in check. Not veteran Jeff Hackett, who suffered from vertigo and couldn't stay healthy. Not Martin Biron or Robert Esche, two guys who always seemed to be looking over their shoulders. Not Ray Emery and certainly not Bryzgalov, at least not yet.

It's been a never-ending quest that has ultimately come up empty time and time again. All hope was that Bryzgalov would end the merry-go-round, but halfway through his first season in Orange and Black, he's been outperformed considerably by youngster Sergei Bobrovsky. It's simply more of the same.

Here's a season-by-season look at the men who have tended the net for the Flyers these past 25 years.


Regular season
Ron Hextall: 62 gp, 30 w, 22 l, 7 t, .886 sv%, 3.50 gaa
Mark LaForest: 21 gp, 5 w, 9 l, 2 t, .874 sv%, 3.70 gaa
Wendell Young: 6 gp, 3 w, 2 l, 0 t, .866 sv%, 3.75 gaa

Hextall: 7 gp, 2 w, 4 l, .847 sv%, 4.75 gaa
LaForest: 2 gp, 1 w, 0 l, .917 sv%, 1.25 gaa

Regular season
Hextall: 64 gp, 30 w, 28 l, 6 t, .891 sv%, 3.23 gaa
LaForest: 17 gp, 5 w, 7 l, 2 t, .871 sv%, 4.12 gaa
Ken Wregget: 3 gp, 1 w, 1 l, 0 t, .822 sv%, 6.00 gaa
Marc D'Amour: 1 gp, 0 w, 0 l, 0 t, 1.000 sv%, 0.00 gaa

Hextall: 15 gp, 8 w, 7 l, .890 sv%, 3.32 gaa
Wregget: 5 gp, 2 w, 2 l, .928 sv%, 2.24 gaa


Regular season
Wregget: 51 gp, 22 w, 24 l, 3 t, .892 sv%, 3.42 gaa
Hextall: 8 gp, 4 w, 2 l, 1 t, .868 sv%, 4.15 gaa
Bruce Hoffort: 7 gp, 3 w, 0 l, 2 t, .881 sv%, 3.47 gaa
Pete Peeters: 24 gp, 1 w, 13 l, 5 t, .881 sv%, 3.79 gaa


Regular season
Hextall: 36 gp, 13 w, 16 l, 5 t, .892 sv%, 3.13 gaa
Wregget: 30 gp, 10 w, 14 l, 3 t, .867 sv%, 3.56 gaa
Peeters: 26 gp, 9 w, 7 l, 1 t, .902 sv%, 2.88 gaa
Hoffort: 2 gp, 1 w, 0 l, 1 t, .850 sv%, 4.62 gaa


Regular season
Hextall: 45 gp, 16 w, 21 l, 6 t, .883 sv%, 3.40 gaa
Wregget: 23 gp, 9 w, 8 l, 3 t, .865 sv%, 3.57 gaa
Dominic Roussel: 17 gp, 7 w, 8 l, 2 t, .908 sv%, 2.60 gaa



Regular season
Tommy Soderstrom: 44 gp, 20 w, 17 l, 6 t, .892 sv%, 3.42 gaa
Roussel: 34 gp, 13 w, 11 l, 5 t, .881 sv%, 3.76 gaa
Stephane Beauregard: 16 gp, 3 w, 9 l, 0 t, .854 sv%, 4.41 gaa



Regular season
Roussel: 60 gp, 29 w, 20 l, 5 t, .896 sv%, 3.34 gaa
Soderstrom: 34 gp, 6 w, 18 l, 4 t, .864 sv%, 4.01 gaa
Frederic Chabot: 4 gp, 0 w, 1 l, 1 t, .875 sv%, 4.29 gaa


Regular season
Hextall: 31 gp, 17 w, 9 l, 4 t, .890 sv%, 2.89 gaa
Roussel: 19 gp, 11 w, 7 l, 0 t, .914 sv%, 2.34 gaa

Hextall: 15 gp, 10 w, 5 l, .904 sv%, 2.81 gaa
Roussel: 1 gp, 0 w, 0 l, 1.000 sv%, 0.00 gaa

Regular season
Hextall: 53 gp, 31 w, 13 l, 7 t, .913 sv%, 2.17 gaa
Garth Snow: 26 gp, 12 w, 8 l, 4 t, .894 sv%, 2.88 gaa
Roussel: 9 gp, 2 w, 3 l, 2 t, .876 sv%, 2.89 gaa

Hextall: 12 gp, 6 w, 6 l, .915 sv%, 2.13 gaa
Snow: 1 gp, - no other stats recorded (played just 1 minute)

Regular season
Hextall: 55 gp, 31 w, 16 l, 5 t, .897 sv%, 2.56 gaa
Snow: 35 gp, 14 w, 8 l, 8 t, .903 sv%, 2.52 gaa

Snow: 12 gp, 8 w, 4 l, .892 sv%, 2.83 gaa
Hextall: 8 gp, 4 w, 3 l, .892 sv%, 2.97 gaa

Regular season
Hextall: 46 gp, 21 w, 17 l, 7 t, .911 sv%, 2.17 gaa
Snow: 29 gp, 14 w, 9 l, 4 t, .902 sv%, 2.43 gaa
Sean Burke: 11 gp, 7 w, 3 l, 0 t, .913 sv%, 2.56 gaa

Burke: 5 gp, 1 w, 4 l, .860 sv%, 3.60 gaa
Hextall: 1 gp, 0 w, 0 l, .875 sv%, 3.00 gaa


Regular season
John Vanbiesbrouck: 62 gp, 27 w, 18 l, 15 t, .902 sv%, 2.18 gaa
Hextall: 23 gp, 10 w, 7 l, 4 t, .888 sv%, 2.53 gaa
Jean-Marc Pelletier: 1 gp, 0 w, 1 l, 0 t, .828 sv%, 5.00 gaa

Vanbiesbrouck: 6 gp, 2 w, 4 l, .938 sv%, 1.46 gaa


Regular season
Vanbiesbrouck: 50 gp, 25 w, 15 l, 9 t, .906 sv%, 2.20 gaa
Brian Boucher: 35 gp, 20 w, 10 l, 3 t, .918 sv%, 1.91 gaa

Boucher: 18 gp, 11 w, 7 l, .917 sv%, 2.03 gaa


Regular season
Roman Cechmanek: 59 gp, 35 w, 15 l, 6 t, .921 sv%, 2.01 gaa
Boucher: 27 gp, 8 w, 12 l, 5 t, .876 sv%, 3.27 gaa
Maxime Ouellet: 2 gp, 0 w, 1 l, 0 t, .889 sv%, 2.37 gaa

Cechmanek: 6 gp, 2 w, 4 l, .891 sv%, 3.11 gaa
Boucher: 1 gp, 0 w, 0 l, .824 sv%, 4.86 gaa

Regular season
Cechmanek: 46 gp, 24 w, 13 l, 6 t, .921 sv%, 2.05 gaa
Boucher: 41 gp, 18 w, 16 l, 4 t, .905 sv%, 2.41 gaa
Neil Little: 1 gp, 0 w, 1 l, 0 t, .862 sv%, 4.00 gaa

Cechmanek: 4 gp, 1 w, 3 l, .936 sv%, 1.85 gaa
Boucher: 2 gp, 0 w, 1 l, .939 sv%, 1.36 gaa

Regular season
Cechmanek: 58 gp, 33 w, 15 l, 10 t, .925 sv%, 1.83 gaa
Robert Esche: 30 gp, 12 w, 9 l, 3 t, .907 sv%, 2.20 gaa

Cechmanek: 13 gp, 6 w, 7 l, .909 sv%, 2.15 gaa
Esche: 1 gp, 0 w, 0 l, .929 sv%, 2.00 gaa


Regular season
Esche: 40 gp, 21 w, 11 l, 7 t, .915 sv%, 2.04 gaa
Jeff Hackett: 27 gp, 10 w, 10 l, 6 t, .905 sv%, 2.39 gaa
Burke: 15 gp, 6 w, 5 l, 2 t, .910 sv%, 2.55 gaa
Antero Niittymaki: 3 gp, 3 w, 0 l, 0 t, .961 sv%, 1.00 gaa
Little: 1 gp, 0 w, 1 l, 0 t, .750 sv%, 3.64 gaa

Esche: 18 gp, 11 w, 7 l, .918 sv%, 2.32 gaa
Burke: 1 gp, 0 w, 0 l, .889 sv%, 1.50 gaa


Regular season
Niittymaki: 46 gp, 23 w, 15 l, 6 OTL, .895 sv%, 2.97 gaa
Esche: 40 gp, 22 w, 11 l, 5 OTL, .897 sv%, 2.97 gaa

Esche: 6 gp, 2 w, 4 l, .875 sv%, 4.20 gaa
Niittymaki: 2 gp, 0 w, 0 l, .828 sv%, 4.11 gaa

Regular season
Niittymaki: 52 gp, 9 w, 29 l, 9 OTL, .894 sv%, 3.38 gaa
Martin Biron: 16 gp, 6 w, 8 l, 2 OTL, .908 sv%, 3.02 gaa
Esche: 18 gp, 5 w, 9 l, 1 OTL, .872 sv%, 4.33 gaa
Michael Leighton: 4 gp, 2 w, 2 l, 0 OTL, .882 sv%, 3.69 gaa
Martin Houle: 1 gp, 0 w, 0 l, 0 OTL, .667 sv%, 30.00 gaa



Regular season
Biron: 62 gp, 30 w, 20 l, 9 OTL, .918 sv%, 2.59 gaa
Niittymaki: 28 gp, 12 w, 9 l, 2 OTL, .907 sv%, 2.91 gaa

Biron: 17 gp, 9 w, 8 l, .904 sv%, 2.97 gaa

Regular season
Biron: 55 gp, 29 w, 19 l, 5 OTL, .915 sv%, 2.76 gaa
Niittymaki: 32 gp, 15 w, 8 l, 6 OTL, .912 sv%, 2.76 gaa

Biron: 6 gp, 2 w, 4 l, .919 sv%, 2.56 gaa


Regular season
Michael Leighton: 27 gp, 16 w, 5 l, 2 OTL, .918 sv%, 2.48 gaa
Ray Emery: 29 gp, 16 w, 11 l, 1 OTL, .905 sv%, 2.64 gaa
Boucher: 33 gp, 9 w, 18 l, 3 OTL, .899 sv%, 2.76 gaa
Jeremy Duchesne: 1 gp, 0 w, 0 l, 0 OTL, .750 sv%, 3.53 gaa
Johan Backlund: 1 gp, 0 w, 1 l, 0 OTL, .917 sv%, 3.00 gaa

Leighton: 14 gp, 8 w, 3 l, .916 sv%, 2.46 gaa
Boucher: 12 gp, 6 w, 6 l, .909 sv%, 2.47 gaa
Backlund: 1 gp, no other stats recorded (played just 1 minute)


Regular season
Sergei Bobrovsky: 54 gp, 28 w, 13 l, 8 OTL, .915 sv%, 2.59 gaa
Boucher: 34 gp, 18 w, 10 l, 4 OTL, .916 sv%, 2.42 gaa
Leighton: 1 gp, 1 w, 0 l, 0 OTL, .889 sv%, 4.00 gaa

Boucher: 9 gp, 4 w, 4 l, .904 sv%, 3.13 gaa
Bobrovsky: 6 gp, 0 w, 2 l, .877 sv%, 3.23 gaa
Leighton: 2 gp, 0 w, 1 l, .862 sv%, 3.43 gaa

2011-12 (to date)
Regular season
Ilya Bryzgalov: 33 gp, 18 w, 10 l, 4 OTL, .895 sv%, 2.99 gaa
Bobrovsky: 19 gp, 11 w, 4 l, 1 OTL, .919 sv%, 2.42 gaa


Friday, January 27, 2012

It's Friday, Time to Dance

No time to waste, because there was a lot going on dance-wise this week. First, Sergei Bobrovsky finally helped the Flyers win a shootout on Tuesday and proceeded to do a little dance after making the final save.

It brought back memories of Brian Boucher doing a variation of the chicken dance after defeating the Rangers in a shootout on the final day of the regular season two years ago with a playoff berth on the line.

Then, ZWR mashed up Bob's dance moves with those of Cole Hamels in a stroke of absolute genius.


And finally, the Sixers announced they are bringing back the old warm-up song. Stomp your feet, Philadelphia.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reflections on a Day in State College

[Two of my friends, silver fox and Arkansas Fred, went to State College yesterday to pay their respects to the late Joe Paterno, along with Arkansas Fred's dad. I have known them since high school. I roomed with Arkansas Fred for three years at Penn State, and he was also my PSU season-ticket partner for two years. I did not accompany them, so silver fox was kind enough to recount the experience.]

Yesterday, arkansas fred, his dad, and I made the trek to State College to pay our final respects to Joe Paterno. As we left arkasas fred's house in the early morning darkness, I wasn't really sure what to expect both emotionally or from the scene in State College.

We arrived in town about 8:30 a.m., parked the car, and headed to the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. The cold, dreary, gray weather reflected the mood. As we approached the center, we came upon an already long line stretching from the center and down the campus sidewalks. Some mourners sniffled and fought back tears, others stared blankly or stood quietly, others talked quietly to each other. News cameras and photographers documented the scene. We took our place in line and waited for our few moments with Joe. A few students passed out hot chocolate and collected donations for THON.

After about an hour and 45 minutes in line, we stood in front of Joe's casket. We each took our brief private moment with Joe, paying our respects and saying goodbye. As the line exited the building, Joe's son Scott stood and greeted every single person. One middle-aged lady was crying, and he just said "come here" and hugged her. We each offered our condolences to him and went back out into the cold State College morning.

From there we strolled up and down College Ave., stopping in stores and taking in the tributes that were posted in nearly every shop window. One had a picture of Joe leading the Nittany Lions onto the field, flanked by two other pictures of the legendary coach, with a a sign that simply read "Thanks Joe! We'll Remember." The student bookstore sign read "Coach Paterno The Greatest Ever" on one side and "Joe Pa will be with us forever" on the other. Other stores painted Coach's image on their windows or had signs that read some of his quotes, my favorite being one that talked about him wanting to be remembered more for making Penn State a better place than how good a football coach he was. Mission accomplished, Joe.

From there we ate some lunch, stopped by the mural with the freshly painted halo over Joe's head, and headed home. We stopped by the statue at the stadium, which was surrounded by a crowd as it has been for the past three days now, and we took in the hundreds of mementos that surrounded the base of the statue and covered the walls surrounding the statue. It turned into a very therapeutic day. Seeing the love and the tributes, being around so many people who were feeling the way you were, it made you feel a little better.

I feel better realizing that it doesn't matter what his legacy is to others. Because I know what it is to me. It doesn't matter what someone who has no connection to Joe, to Penn State, or to the state of Pennsylvania thinks. Because I know what everyone who has one or more of those connections thinks. I know those who were impacted by Joe either directly or indirectly, those are the people that understand, and those are the people who matter. Those are the people who will carry on and pass on Joe's values and Joe's lessons. And that is his legacy.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ilya Bryzgalov Stinks but I Still Kind of Like Him

I have a confession to make: I never really wanted the Philadelphia Flyers to choose signing goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov over keeping captain Mike Richards and leading goal-scorer Jeff Carter this summer. When it happened, I actually said that if you asked me if I'd rather have Richards and Carter with second-year netminder Sergei Bobrovsky in net or Bryzgalov — the most accomplished free-agent goaltender on the market — in net and no Richards and Carter around, I'd go with the former over the latter.

The jury is still out on the offseason transactions that completely changed the face of the Flyers franchise, even though we're at the halfway point of the NHL season. It's hard to argue that the Jeff Carter trade was anything but a success for the Flyers so far, seeing as Carter has struggled with injuries and production on a dreadful Columbus team while the players the Flyers got in return for Carter have been huge contributors. Jakub Voracek has added speed and versatility, playing in all situations, while rookie Sean Couturier has been a revelation — a PK specialist who has shown offensive flair of late and maturity beyond his years.

The Richards trade unquestionably helped change the dynamic of this current team — a team that currently sits in 4th place in the East and just three points behind the Rangers for the top spot in the division and the conference. Wayne Simmonds has provided a tough, grinding work ethic and huge net presence, while Brayden Schenn, now fully recovered from early-season injury, is coming off a monster game against the Bruins Sunday and showing all the makings of a future star. Meanwhile, Richards has done pretty well for himself in LA, getting off to a quick offensive start before an injury set him back, but still producing with 14 goals and 12 assists while doing all the things for the Kings that he did here in Philadelphia. It seems to be a move that's benefited both teams, and when you combine both trades, the Flyers got younger and deeper with each move. Hard to argue with the haul they received and the production the young talent has provided already.

However, the catalyst for all of these moves has been nothing as advertised. When the Flyers signed Ilya Bryzgalov to an insanely long 9-year contract, they thought they were getting the elite goaltender they've lacked since Ron Hextall was winning the Conn Smythe as a rookie. They thought they were getting the guy who posted a goals against average of 2.55 or better every year of his career except one, the guy who had never had a save percentage worse than .906 in his entire career despite spending the majority of it playing for a mediocre to poor Phoenix team.

Instead, what the Flyers have gotten out of Bryzgalov is a career-worst season to date. While his record of 18-10-4 is quite good, his numbers tell a different story: a 2.99 goals against average and .895 save percentage. It's almost as if the Flyers are winning in spite of a their marquee goalie, not because of him.

I'll concede that Bryzgalov has been the recipient of plenty of bad luck and has unquestionably been left hung out to dry by his teammates with baffling defensive breakdowns far too often. How many times have we seen a crazy deflection or unmarked man leading to a puck behind Bryz? Still, bad breaks and bad defense can only explain so much. When you're being tabbed and paid as an elite netminder, you have to come through with some spectacular saves and steal some games, the way Martin Brodeur has for years, the way Patrick Roy and Dominic Hasek made careers doing, the way Henrik Lundqvist and Tim Thomas do nowadays. Ilya Bryzgalov has not been able to that.

Sure, he's had really, really good games here and there, had a couple of really nice stretches. But he hasn't sustained that play. On Saturday, he was brilliant against the Devils, stopping 30 shots in a 4-1 victory and coming up with some incredible saves, only to follow that up by surrendering 5 goals before looking flat-out helpless in a shootout loss to the Bruins yesterday. He simply hasn't been as advertised. If he had been, the Flyers very well may be running away with things in the Eastern Conference, considering how well they've fared as a team despite Bryzgalov's struggles and a rash of injuries (especially concussions).

The odd thing is, while I'm certainly disappointed in Bryz's play, I haven't turned on him. I don't hate him. I'm not clamoring for him to be benched and shipped out, even as the promising young Sergei Bobrovsky has far outperformed him. For whatever reason, I feel like Bryzgalov will turn things around and play the way his body of work suggests he's capable of playing. Maybe it's because of his quirky appearances on 24/7 or the way I can relate to his recent lashing out at the Philadelphia media that I'm still in his corner.

Maybe it's because I know his contract is untradeable and he won't be going anywhere for a while. Or maybe it's out of sheer hope that he'll start playing like the goalie we all expected him to be. I'm not entirely sure to be honest with you, though I do find it hard to believe he won't turn things around, even in this "miserable market for goalies."

Right now, there's no denying that Ilya Bryzgalov stinks. And yet, here I am still finding myself liking his craziness and his temper and for whatever reason, believing in him. Now I can only hope he validates my feelings with stellar play the rest of the way, even if evidence this season — and yesterday — suggests otherwise.

A Moment of Silence on Joe Paterno

I'm not writing a memorial or my own personal obituary on the passing of Joe Paterno, and no one is more shocked about that revelation than me. I've spent my entire life prior to November as a Penn Stater who idolized Joe Paterno — long before I attended Penn State's University Park campus for four years.

I met him as a child at a luncheon, taking a picture with the legendary coach and getting his autograph. I saw him Saturday after Saturday from the moment I remember having the ability to see things, and I always envisioned him living forever. Then, as I got older and wiser and discovered that no one can outrun death, I always imagined him dying on the field on game day, most likely in Beaver Stadium in front 110,000 people who flocked to State College in large part because of him.

As we all know, things did not end that way. After the scandal broke and he was summarily fired, I think everyone knew he'd be gone in a matter of months, if not sooner. Unsurprisingly, that's what happened, an old man left with his legacy tarnished and his health failing him deciding it was time to hang the black shoes up.

Given my own history as a Penn State graduate and lifelong Nittany Lion, I thought I'd have something profound to say, or at least something heartfelt and earnest like I did when the great Harry Kalas passed away. But as I've read the obituaries, the good and the bad, I'm left with nothing more to invest emotionally in this whole entire mess. I don't want to write a glowing tribute to the man I knew for the majority of my life, and I don't want to downplay his great deeds nor his fatal downfall. Truth be told, I don't want to think about Joe Paterno at all right now, as selfish as that sounds.

I've been a part of Penn State my entire life and continue to be a part of the university. I should have something to say about the most important man in Penn State history. But words fail me. I've been thinking about Penn State and Joe Paterno and a horrifying scandal too much as it is. I just don't have any energy left. In time, maybe that will change. In fact, I imagine it probably will.

But today, I'm left with nothing to add, nothing to share, nothing to say. Joe Paterno is dead, and all I can contribute is a moment of silence.

Friday, January 20, 2012

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Apparently, Jimmy Rollins broke into a freestyle rap while traveling to Uganda. I couldn't find any video of his rap, but I did find this:

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Evan, Andre, Andre & One Wild 4th Quarter (& Horrible OT Call)

Do you see the woman above that Allen Iverson is screaming at? Her name is Violet Palmer, and she is the worst referee in the NBA. Don't believe me? Just ask Steve Nash:

Last night, she showed exactly why damn near every image you see of her on the Web involves someone yelling at her or mocking her by making one of the absolutely worst charging calls of all time. I'm not even exaggerating when I say that. With the Sixers down by 2 in overtime, Evan Turner drove to the lane, jumped sideways to avoid making contact with Nene Hilario as Nene was sliding sideways to bump Turner when out of nowhere, Palmer called a charge on Evan. It was quite literally as bad of a call as I've ever seen. This wasn't even close. It was a textbook block by Nene, who intentionally slid into Turner as Turner was in the air, jumping sideways purposefully to avoid contact, and yet this sorry excuse for a referee made an impossibly horrid call on Turner, handing the ball unjustly back over to the Nuggets, who then would hit what turned into the game-winning shot.

It was a disappointing, deflating end to an otherwise outstanding basketball game — one that had everything basketball fans could ask for.

The Sixers asserted themselves quite emphatically in the opening quarter, opening up a 14-point lead at one point and finishing the first 12 minutes up 9 against a very good Denver team. Making it even more impressive, the Sixers did it without starting center and early-season star Spencer Hawes, who missed the game with back trouble, giving rookie Nik Vucevic his first career start. It was the type of start we've come to expect from the 2011-12 Sixers, smothering one of the highest-scoring teams in the league with relentless defense to hold the Nuggets to just 19 first-quarter points.

However, things went south from there. George Karl inserted a familiar face in Andre Miller, and the potent Denver offense began to bare its teeth. The wily former Sixer showed just how comfortable he still is in Philadelphia, taking over the show with 8 points and 5 assists to close out the first half as the Nuggets exploded for 32 second-quarter points. And Miller was only getting warmed up.

Conversely, the Sixers stopped doing what they had in the opening quarter, namely on offense. This season, the Sixers have become one of the top-scoring teams by sharing the ball and moving it around on offense. When they're doing that, they put up points in bunches. Where they get in trouble is when they stop moving the ball and start playing a one-on-one type of game. That's what happened in the second quarter. All too often, there'd be a possession where the ball stopped with one player trying to make something happen in an iso situation. Whether it was Jrue Holiday's youth coming through by jacking up a quick, ill-advised shot or Andre Iguodala attempting to break down his defender, it turned ugly rather quickly. Elton Brand's jumper stopped falling. Lou Williams could never quite get going. If it wasn't for Thaddeus Young's 12 first-half points, who knows how far the Sixers could have fallen.

But the 4th quarter is really where the drama began to unfold. After the Sixers and Nuggets battled to a 27-27 stalemate in the 3rd, the game shifted to an intense, back-and-forth playoff-type atmosphere of a game, with two of the deepest, most athletic and most well-coached teams in the league going at it.

It was nothing short of thrilling, and the Wells Fargo Center was rocking. On one side, you had Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Andre Iguodala teaming up with ferocious defense, aggressive drives and huge buckets. On the other side, you had the aging Andre Miller almost single-handedly pulling his teammates along with him.

I mean that quite literally. Here are all the scoring plays, and relevant big plays, from the 4th quarter:

Turner jump shot made, 74-82
Turner free throw made, 75-82
Iguodala rebound
Young layup made, 77-82
Brand steal
Brand layup made, 79-82
Iguodala rebound
Iguodala dunk, 81-82
Iguodala rebound
Iguodala tip in, 83-82
Turner rebound
Turner rebound
Turner layup, 85-82
Miller jump shot made, 84-85
Lawson jump shot made, assist by Miller (his 10th), 86-85
Brand dunk, 87-86
Turner two free throws made, 89-86
Miller three-pointer made, 89-89
Iguodala jump shot made, 91-89
Iguodala rebound
Turner jump shot made, 93-89
Miller layup made, 91-93
Miller free throw, 92-93
Miller jump shot made, 94-93
Holiday layup made, 95-94
Miller jump shot made, 96-95
Iguodala free throw miss
Iguodala free throw made, 96-96

Turner had an absolute breakout game, filling the stat sheet with 20 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals — and more importantly, he looked more confident than he ever has since entering the NBA. Turner wanted the ball in crunch time and came through time and time again. At least until the bogus charging call on him OT.

Thad was outstanding all game long, chipping in a team-high 22 points and creating a steal that led to a dunk to make the WFC erupt.

And Iguodala had a tremendous fourth quarter, playing remarkable defense, dunking on people and even hitting a couple huge shots. Of course, you can't talk about late-game moments and Andre Iguodala without having something disappointing happen. Last night was no exception.

After Jrue Holiday showed some balls and drove for a bucket to put the Sixers up 1 with 16.9 left, Andre Miller came through again, hitting yet another bucket to score points 25 and 26 and put Denver up 96-95 with 7.9 to play. As I was relaying how crazy the fourth quarter was and updating silver fox on the play-by-play since he was out at the time, I wrote:

Miller just put them ahead, 7.9 left

It's crazy

His response:

Don't give it to Dre

Of course they did, and Andre got fouled with a chance to put the Sixers ahead. Instead, Iguodala did what he's starting to become synonymous with doing, missing the first free throw. Luckily he hit the second to tie the game up, and Andre Miller's last-second heave missed, sending the game to overtime. But god damn, it sure would have been nice to see Iguodala hit both freebies and come away with the victory. Sadly, that just doesn't seem to be in him. In fact, he's been miserable at the foul line this year, shooting an inexcusable 66.7 percent. Defying all logic, Iguodala has been somehow becoming a worse free-throw shooter over the years, shooting under 70 percent last season and dipping even lower this year.

The guy is a career 74.3 percent free-throw shooter, hitting a career-high 82 percent in 2006-07. But since, he's topped out at just 73.3 percent, and now is down to 66.7 percent. That's simply not acceptable for a shooting guard in his 8th season as a pro.

Still, Iggy had a great 4th quarter and helped the Sixers get to overtime, and the game was simply awesome to watch. The drama kept up in OT. The teams continued to go back and forth, with the Sixers looking like they were going to get the victory behind back-to-back buckets by Thad Young, only to be answered by a tough step-back by Afflalo right in Turner's grill and Andre Miller scoring yet again to put the Nuggets up two following that horrendous charging call by Palmer on Turner.

What I don't understand is why Doug Collins decided to take out Evan Turner and Thad following Miller's bucket. There was just 42.9 seconds remaining and the Sixers trailed by 2. For some reason, Collins took out Young and Turner, the two leading scorers for the Sixers on the night and two guys who had been hitting huge buckets in the 4th quarter and overtime, and brought in Lou Williams and Jodie Meeks, two players who had been sitting for a long time and, in Lou's case, who had played sparingly on the night. It made no sense to me at all. The Sixers didn't need a three, especially since they were at home and the crowd was rocking, and the two guys Collins took out were having much better games both offensively and defensively than the two guys he put in.

Collins' decision didn't work out either. Lou Williams did get wide open for a three, a great play call and a great shot to take, but he missed it. It's not hard to understand why given he was coming in cold and had been having a horrid day from the field. That's why I don't understand the move, taking out Thad and Turner, two guys who had quite literally been carrying the team all game long. I guess Doug can't win them all, and neither can the Sixers.

Still, that shouldn't take away from a brilliant game. It was awesome to watch, and exciting to see the Sixers battle another deep, athletic, good team. Maybe things would have been different had Hawes been able to go, especially since Vucevic struggled and Tony Battie is 8,000 years old. The lack of size definitely showed, as Nene proved too much of a load inside, putting up 20 and 14, and even Al Harrington gave Elton Brand and company trouble down low.

But it was a great performance by Evan Turner (who of course I left on my bench in fantasy), a great 4th quarter (minus one free throw) for Andre Iguodala and a nice game from Thad. Though it was the former Sixer who had the last laugh, as Andre Miller showed he still has some life left in those old legs.

This team is exciting and fun to watch — in fact, both teams are— and last night was as good of a basketball game as you'll see all season. Don't be surprised if neither the Nuggets or the Sixers go anywhere anytime soon. They're both relatively young, deep and athletic teams that featured balanced scoring attacks and excellent coaches. Come to think of it, it's pretty eery how similar these two squads are. The difference in the end was that the Nuggets put the ball in the hands of a 35-year-old veteran point guard who made every right decision whereas the Sixers' 21-year-old 3rd-year point guard threw the ball away to squander any last chance the team may have had. In time, hopefully Jrue can get to where Andre is at in his decision-making, and this already fun team will become even more fun to watch.

Monday, January 16, 2012

MaaLiK Wayns Day

In Cincinnati on Saturday, Villanova junior Maalik Wayns had one of the most dominant all-around performances of any player all season long. He scored a game-high 39 points on 12-22 from the field, 6-13 from beyond the arc and 9-10 from the foul line, while also hauling in 13 rebounds and dishing out 6 assists. He was in a zone and working his ass off, only to watch his struggling Wildcats drop to 8-10 on the season with a heartbreaking 82-78 loss.

You really have to feel for Wayns, the 6'2 Roman Catholic grad who is busting his ass night in and night out only to get little to no help from his teammates. It's certainly true that Maalik has struggled with his shooting this year, but part of that is because he's forced to take so many shots because none of his teammates can get buckets. It's led to a disastrous season for Villanova, and some porous shooting percentages for Wayns.

That doesn't and shouldn't take away from his effort, however. Wayns is leading Nova with points (17.8 ppg), assists (4.7), steals (1.0), minutes (33.7) and free-throw percentage (89.0), and is third in rebounding (4.2). He's doing damn near all he can with a young Villanova squad that lacks any other scoring punch, and he deserves some recognition for that, especially after his insane performance on Saturday.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Flyers Video Just Because

I'm tired and feeling lazy. You can't really blame me — after all, I'm finishing up a five-day work week after back-to-back three-day work weeks. So here's some video of Danny Briere being awesome last weekend, as well as Sean Couturier and Sergei Bobrovsky being awesome last night.

The 8 X-Factors Who Will Determine NFL Divisional Playoff Weekend Winners

The 8 X-Factors Who Will Determine NFL Divisional Playoff Weekend Winners

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Struggling Villanova heads west to take on the Cincinnati Bearcats tomorrow. Given what happened between cross-town rivals Xavier and Cincy earlier this season, Nova not only has to bring its A game, but it should probably watch itself around Yancy Gates, who clearly is not opposed to sucker-punching someone and knocking them out.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Iconic Moments

We watch sports for many different reasons, and sports give us many things in return. Thrills and disappointments, joy and heartbreak, incredible feats and performances both individual and team. Lifelong memories that we share with family and friends. The simple fact that your favorite team is playing at night can get you through a hard day. Then there are the iconic moments.

Iconic moments. Those moments that are frozen in your memory forever. That you can recall at any moment and replay in your head as if you had just seen it. Every detail, every movement burned into your memory. The moments you dream about being a part of when you were a kid. A World Series winning hit. A championship-winning buzzer-beater. Scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.

These moments that burn into your mind can be both joyous or heartbreaking, as all Philadelphians know. There are several of those not-so-pleasant ones that haunt us all, which I will not mention in detail. Some of these moments are universal, as any sports fan can recall them, and some are more subjective, reserved for an individual or a specific fan base. Here are a few of mine.

Lidge drops to his knees

This one is self-explanatory for any Phils fan, especially of my generation. It's the lasting image of the first championship of our lifetime. I'll never forget that glorious October or where I was when it finally happened.

The Stepover

Allen Iverson is my favorite athlete of all time. The 2000-2001 season saw the Sixers jump out to a 10-0 start, continue to run through the rest of the regular season, and battle their way to the NBA Finals. There they met the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, who had yet to be defeated in the entire postseason. So here come the Sixers, a heavy underdog, and they gut and grind their way to a Game 1 road victory. The Sixers eventually came up short, but this moment showed the Lakers and the world that the Sixers were coming to play and weren't going down without a fight. It was the greatest moment in a season where the Sixers and A.I. provided a ton of great moments.

Jordan over Russell

This one pretty much speaks for itself. The greatest player ever adding yet another signature moment to his legacy, taking and making the final shot of Chicago Bulls career to win his 6th and final title.<

Brandi Chastain clinches '99 World Cup

Partly because it clinched the World Cup title, partly because I watched a woman rip her shirt off on national television. You have to love the emotion, you have to love the unrestrained reaction. Plus it gave us this gem of a commercial:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The 76ers Are Good and Will Remain Good All Season

Last night, the Philadelphia 76ers won their fifth straight game to improve to 6-2 on this young, abbreviated season and remain undefeated in 2012. The victory over Indiana, which kicked off a brutal three-day stretch of back-to-back-to-back games, was the first test against an Eastern Conference foe ahead of them in the standings, and the Sixers passed with flying colors, defeating the Pacers by 10 in a total team effort.

It was the type of performance that has embodied the Sixers in the first 8 games of the season: stifling defense, balanced offense and contributions from everyone on the floor. Last night, six 76ers scored at least 11 points, six players had at least 5 rebounds, and everyone who took the court except for Jodie Meeks had at least one assist. It's that type of team basketball that has propelled the Sixers to this hot start, and it's the reason why ESPN's John Hollinger has them No. 1 in his just updated power rankings.

The thing is, this isn't just a fluky hot start. Given the unusual nature of this season's abbreviated, compacted schedule thanks to the lockout, the Sixers have several distinct advantages that have allowed them to start hot and should allow them to remain tough all season long: they are young, deep, well-coached and had very little roster turnover.

With teams playing five to six games a week, these advantages cannot be overstated. Older teams will have a hard time dealing with the heavy workload, whereas teams with younger legs should have an edge. Few teams are younger than the Sixers, who boast only one regular in the rotation over 30 — 32-year-old Elton Brand — while nearly everyone else is 25 or younger. And when I say nearly everyone else, I mean everyone in the regular rotation besides 27-year-old Andre Iguodala. Lou Williams is 25. Jodie Meeks is 24. Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner are 23. Jrue Holiday and Nikola Vucevic are 21. That's an average age of just over 24 for the nine regulars in Doug Collins' rotation, and if you include perennial bench warmers Lavoy Allen (22), Tony Battie (35), Craig Brackins (24) and Andres Nocioni (32), they still average just 25.5 years of age. The Sixers have young legs, so they'll be able to handle the wear and tear much better than veteran teams like the Mavericks, Celtics, Lakers or Heat.

Furthermore, since the Sixers do go 9 deep, they get to keep their fresh young legs even fresher. And the Sixers really do go 9 deep, with 8 players averaging more than 20 minutes a night, and rookie first-round pick Nik Vucevic proving he'll soon get that same type of playing time given his remarkably impressive performances over the past week, including a much-needed 11 points and 8 rebounds in 17 minutes last night with Elton Brand in foul trouble and Spencer Hawes not feeling all that well. Oh, and Nik also confidently drilled a late three that put a dagger in the Pacers.

Admittedly, I was underwhelmed when the Sixers drafted Vucevic. Now I see the way he runs the floor, how he shoots the ball and how athletic he is, and he's winning me over. So is the entire team.

Right now, the Sixers have five players averaging double digits in points, led by Lou Williams at 16.6 a game. That doesn't even include Elton Brand, who is off to a slow start at just 8.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per. Last year, Brand averaged 15 points a game and was quietly the most efficient Sixer all season. For his career, he's averaged 18.7 points per game, never averaging fewer than 13.1 a game, so you have to think he'll at least average 10 ppg before it's all said and done. Evan Turner, who has already shown marked improvement from his up-and-down, disappointing rookie year, very well may join him, averaging 9.3 ppg at the moment.

Jrue Holiday is continuing his ascent and should only get better as the year goes on. Andre Iguodala isn't trying to carry the offensive load the way he once did, and he's become a true leader for the youngsters. Spencer Hawes has been the season's biggest surprise to date, averaging a double-double and looking like a completely different player. Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams give the Sixers two of the best bench scorers in the entire league, and with a second unit that also includes Turner and Vucevic, the Sixers are never without a diverse set of scorers and defenders on the floor.

When you add to that an extremely knowledgeable and talented coach, you can easily see where this 6-2 start comes from, especially when you factor in the continuity on the roster from last year. The only newcomer into the fold is the rookie Vucevic. All eight of the other regulars played significant minutes last year under Collins, so the Sixers aren't suffering from the same feeling-out period that many other teams in the NBA are facing due to shortened training camps and roster turnover.

That's why the Sixers are currently playing as good a brand of basketball as anyone. On any given night, anyone who takes the court could be the star — but usually it's just everyone doing a little bit of everything. Furthermore, the entire team has bought into Collins' defensive philosophy, with Thaddeus Young working harder than he ever has on that end, Iguodala playing the elite perimeter defense we've come to expect, and everyone else from Evan Turner to Elton Brand to Spencer Hawes focusing to protect the rim. What it's resulted in is the league's best defense: the Sixers are surrendering the fewest points in the NBA (85.6), their opponents are shooting a league-worst 39.1 percent from the field against them and only Portland has defended the three better so far this year, with opponents shooting just 26.9 percent from the beyond arc against Philadelphia.

When you factor it all in, the Sixers have the makings of a good basketball team. And while it's still an extremely long stretch to say this team is capable of making any sort of extended run come playoff time, it's not a stretch to say the Philadelphia 76ers are right now a very good basketball team and will be a good team all season long.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Bill O'Brien Makes Good First Impression

Admittedly, I was not exactly thrilled with my alma mater for hiring Bill O'Brien and for taking so long to name a head coach. Like several vocal alumns, I thought the search committee led by interim athletic director Dave Joyner did a disservice to the members of the 2011 Penn State coaching staff by stringing them along and moving slower than molasses through the process, all but assuring those not retained will have a hard time finding jobs before the start of the 2012 season.

Also, I wasn't exactly sold on handing over the reigns of one of the most storied football programs in the nation over to a guy who had never been a head coach at any level and who had only a couple years of coordinator experience — two statistically unsuccessful years as the offensive coordinator at Duke, and one very successful year as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots this season. It also didn't help that the only thing I really knew about him was that he was the guy who screamed at Tom Brady on the sidelines like he was a child.

However, unlike guys like Lavar Arrington and Brandon Short — two players I grew up idolizing — I was and am willing to give O'Brien a chance. I don't see what good it does for anyone to renounce an institution it once loved or threaten to sue the school. That's not going to help your university move on from a horrific tragedy and scandal, so what's the point — especially when you've been such positive advocates for Penn State over the years?

Believe me, I understand the frustration and anger. To many former players and alumni, the way the board of directors and search committee went about all of this put off an air of pretending that nothing from the past 50 years was worth squat. Of course that's upsetting, and I do feel particularly bad for long-time defensive coordinator and interim head coach Tom Bradley — a man who was probably never really a serious candidate for the job and was left hung out to dry by those in charge at the university. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and times have never been more desperate for any big-time college football program and perhaps any U.S. university than they are right now at Penn State. There needed to be a new direction, and let's face it, the situation in Happy Valley didn't exactly lend itself to a big-name hire. What established coach with his choice of where to work would voluntarily walk into the shit storm at Penn State?

Thus we were left with Bill O'Brien, an up-and-comer in the NFL ranks who has an extensive background at the collegiate level. You can find his résumé all over the place, so I won't bore you with his background. What I will do is break down what I took away from O'Brien's introductory press conference on Saturday, which I watched pretty much in its entirety save for a few moments after ESPN cut away until my roommate and I flipped over to the Big Ten Network.

At first, O'Brien looked and sounded a bit nervous at the podium, understandably. It didn't help that he went into a sort of life biography, introducing his wife, son and brother and having them stand and wave. I've never really seen anything quite like that at a press conference, and it was pretty awkward to say the least. However, it helped set the narrative for O'Brien as a family man with good morals, something Penn State was known for prior to November. I can understand why both O'Brien and Penn State wanted him to begin that way, though I was more interested to hear what he had to say about the job and the program and his plan to move the team and the university forward.

Thankfully, O'Brien did not disappoint in those areas. Once the talk shifted to football and the challenges ahead, O'Brien shined. He discussed the history of Joe Paterno with admiration, but also made it clear this is a new era in Penn State history. That was wise to help appease to some extent the many people who were peeved that a man with no ties to the program whatsoever was brought in. Further, he addressed the controversy and backlash that has been out there since his hire started circulating head on, saying he understands some people are upset, but it's his job to bring the Penn State family back together and headed in the same direction. As an alumnus, I appreciated the fact that he didn't avoid the chatter and turn a deaf ear to it, and his open letter to the Penn State community was nothing short of a home run.

He also addressed the concerns many have raised about his decision to stay with the New England Patriots throughout their playoff run, no matter how long it goes, instead of jumping right in to his new position full time. He said simply that he couldn't truthfully look any players or recruits in the eye and talk about loyalty and dedication to the team if he walked out on the Patriots in the middle of the playoffs — a valid point and something that's hard to argue with, even with recruiting concerns looming.

Once he got going, O'Brien came across as an intelligent — he did go to Brown after all — genuine, passionate guy, someone who is confident but respectful of Penn State's tradition, and a man who is ready to take on the challenge laid out before him.

Then he completely won me over by stating that he had talked with Larry Johnson Sr., the longtime defensive line coach and interim co-defensive coordinator, and that LJ would be a member of his coaching staff.

Titles have not been officially announced, but I assume Johnson will be either the defensive coordinator (my hope) or remain defensive line coach, something he's done a masterful job at over the years. If anyone was going to survive from the staff, I wanted it to be Johnson for a couple of reasons. Number one, he's a fantastic coach, evident by the long list of defensive linemen he's coached and helped make All-Americans and NFL players — Jimmy Kennedy, Anthony Adams, Michael Haynes, Aaron Maybin, Jared Odrick, Devon Still, just to name a few. Second, LJ Sr. has been the best Penn State recruiter for years, which will help the university in trying to retain its current commits and also allow Johnson to continue recruiting as O'Brien finishes up with New England.

It's been reported that linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden will also remain on the Penn State coaching staff, along with strength and conditioning John Thomas. The remainder of the coaching staff has yet to be named in full, however Tennessee Titans offensive assistant Charles London has been named the new runningback coach. Clearly, O'Brien is putting an experienced, talented staff around him, just like he declared he would on Saturday, and by retaining a few of the more highly regarded coaches already at Penn State, he showed he cares and respects what the previous regime has built.

Of course, the jury is still out on O'Brien as a coach. If he steps in and wins games, recruits well and helps Penn State continue the success it's had on and off the field, he'll have no trouble winning over a befuddled and upset fan base. If he loses games and/or bolts early for another job, the reservations people have will be validated. We don't know which direction things will go, but I can tell you I came away from Saturday's press conference impressed. Bill O'Brien made a good first impression on me, and apparently did the same with his new players.

Now I can only hope he makes a good lasting impression on Penn State University because in the end, that's the only thing that really matters.

Friday, January 6, 2012

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Patrick Patterson dancing to Thriller. Sure, why not.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Khalif Wyatt Earp and Scenes from the Upset

Wyatt Earp was known as one of the deadliest gunman of his day, a sharpshooter who became famous for his part in the Shootout at the O.K. Corral. Last night, it was another Wyatt doing the sharpshooting, as Temple's amply named Khalif Wyatt scored a game-high 22 points to lead the Owls to an improbable 78-73 upset victory over the top-five ranked Duke Blue Devils in Philadelphia.

And I was lucky enough to be there in the Wells Fargo Center to witness perhaps the biggest upset I've ever actually been at. It was glorious.

The thing that made the win so special was the fact that on paper, this game shouldn't have even been close. The Owls are down two starters in the injured Scootie Randall, who very well may redshirt, and center Michael Eric, leaving them not only undermanned, but extremely undersized. The two tallest players to take the court for Temple were 6'9" freshman Anthony Lee and 6'6" junior Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson. No chance the Owls could hold their own against on of the biggest Duke teams of recent memory thanks to a frontcourt led by the 6'10" Plumlee brothers and the versatile 6'11" Ryan Kelly. At least, that's what we thought.

Heading into the game, silver fox, Toonces and I all thought this was going to be a blowout in favor of the bad guys, and we pretty much braced ourselves for an unenjoyable evening. Adding to that frustration was the fact that a slew of people who apparently can't read kept trying to force their way into the wrong seats because they've apparently never been to a basketball game before. Idiots all around us were searching for seats, taking the wrong seats, standing up and blocking the court and generally being complete assholes. If you can't read a ticket and find your seat, you should not be allowed in the building, simple as that. It's not hard, unless you're a fucking moron. Last night, there were a lot of fucking morons.

To make matters worse, a crew of what looked like well-to-do businessmen sat next to us in our row … and got up all the damn time. Like, during game action, just nonchalantly got up or tried to force their way back to their seats while we were, you know, trying to watch the game. People like that should just stay the fuck home or at least have the courtesy to wait until there's a stoppage in play to make real fans who are actually watching the game get up.

I really hated those guys, though it could have been worse. A couple rows in front of us, an innocent old man got a good portion of beer spilled on him as a girl bit it walking up the steps and dropped a freshly poured brew. Glad I wasn't that guy, that's for sure.

Then when you combined all that with a large portion of blue spread around the arena, it made for what could have been an absolutely brutal night. Only the Owls wouldn't let it happen.

Right from the opening tip, you could see Temple wasn't going to back down, no matter how big and highly touted the Blue Devils were. Khalif Wyatt started hot, scoring 6 quick points, and Temple fought hard defensively to make Duke earn everything.

Before you could blink, Temple was playing the front-runner, and they never looked back.

I was stunned for a number of reasons, but mainly because of Duke's strategy. Given Temple's lack of size and Duke's big advantage inside, I expected the Blue Devils to pound the ball down low to Mason and Miles Plumlee, along with allowing Kelly to shoot over smaller players — forcing Temple to double and then kicking it out to shooters like Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Austin Rivers. Only Duke didn't really do that all that much. Yes, Anthony Lee and Jefferson did a tremendous job fronting and making entry passes difficult, but damn near every time one of the Plumlees got the ball inside, they scored. Temple simply had no answer, evident by Mason's 16-point, 13-rebound performance and Miles' remarkably efficient 8-11 shooting for 17 points.

And yet, Duke either didn't or couldn't consistently go inside, and Temple took advantage. Wyatt was out of this world shooting the ball, going 8-12 from the field, 3-5 from beyond the arc and putting in a couple daggers in the 2nd half when it looked like Duke may make its push. Ramone Moore efficiently worked off screens and got to the hoop, chipping in with 11 big points, a lot of which came when the red hot Wyatt was on the bench with 4 fouls. Hollis-Jefferson played perhaps the best game of his career, scoring 17 points on 7-10 from the field, 3-3 from the line and somehow managing 6 rebounds despite his height disadvantage.

It was just a total team effort, something Duke was lacking. Where Anthony Lee hit huge buckets and played sound defense, Ryan Kelly went MIA. Where Juan Fernandez, despite some turnover troubles, refused to force things and came up with some spectacular late-game passes, Seth Curry wilted from the spotlight. Where Aaron Brown hit clutch free throws (something the rest of the Owls didn't do) and gave hard-fought minutes guarding players nearly a foot taller, Andre Dawkins was nowhere to be found.

Even T.J. DiLeo, a player who always works hard but rarely stands out, came up with two huge steals, hounding defense and a spark when Fernandez was banged up or Wyatt was on the bench.

Here were the Owls, a collection of players who are unquestionably good but nowhere near McDonald's All-American talents, outworking and outplaying Duke, on national television no less, while the heralded Blue Devils seemed stunned.

The craziest thing was watching a player like Wyatt come out and shine, playing with the utmost confidence and absolutely no fear, while the much more highly touted and well-known Austin Rivers shrunk away. I have to tell you, I was actually really looking forward to see Rivers play in person. I've heard so much about him and have had several people tell me how otherworldly his skills are. Not last night. No, last night, Rivers was, quite frankly, awful, doing more complaining than executing.

He shot a miserable 3-11 from the field, had just 2 assists to 3 turnovers, and looked all-around unimpressive. I'm sure it was just a bad night, made worse by a clearly hungry and veteran Temple team hounding him all game. But I was absolutely underwhelmed and truthfully annoyed that Rivers was flopping and whining the same way Rakeem Christmas did when I saw him in person for the first time, almost as if he deserved more from the refs because he's Austin Rivers and he plays for Duke and, oh by the way, do you know who his dad is?

Very disappointing, yet not disappointing at all because I hate Duke so much.

That hatred certainly helped make the atmosphere that much greater. The Temple students were just itching to explode, and the Owls gave them plenty of reasons to. I was freaking out, yelling and jumping up and enjoying the excitement more than I have at a college basketball game in a long while. And you could just feel the electricity in the building.

As the game went on and Temple still maintained its lead, you could feel the place was ready to erupt. With more than two minutes left, the Temple students starting pushing forward anticipating the upset and preparing to storm the court — a little too prematurely to be honest given the talent and the shooting ability of Duke, but I can't blame them. I'd have done the same thing if I was them.

Thankfully, there was no Duke comeback, even though Temple missed entirely too many free throws down the stretch to leave the door open. They simply wouldn't let this one slip away. When the final buzzer went off, the students flocked on the hardwood and I took it all in. I was so incredibly pumped I even surprised myself, yelling at some Duke fans on our way back to subway, then out celebrating with drinks and late-night cheesesteaks while honoring the birthday boy Toonces.

It was an all-around awesome night. My two favorite things in college basketball are Temple winning and Duke losing. Last night, I got to witness them both happen in the same game thanks in large part to the sharpshooting of Khalif Wyatt and a relentless team effort by the Owls. It doesn't get much better than that.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Brayden Schenn's Breakout Overshadowed by King Henrik

Yesterday's Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park was just about all the NHL could have asked for. It featured two major media and hockey markets with a heated rivalry among two teams atop the standings, star players coming through for their respective teams, a fast-paced game with very few whistles and even a potential game-tying penalty shot with 20 seconds left in regulation.

The result notwithstanding, it was one hell of a good hockey game. When it was all said and done the real difference in the outcome was goaltending, and 100 times out of 100 if the game comes down to the goalies, the Rangers will come out ahead. Henrik Lundqvist is a superstar and played like it yesterday, while Sergei Bobrovsky looked every bit like the green sophomore in net that he is. All the while, the man who was supposed to be to Philadelphia what Lundqvist is to the Rangers was left out in the cold with a .890 save percentage and 3.01 goals against average.

No matter what the official stars of the game tally tells you, it was Lundqvist who was the best player on the ice. With all due respect to Mike Rupp and his improbable two goals, King Henrik is the man who kept the game tied in the first period despite the Flyers taking it to the Rangers. He's the guy who thwarted 34 shots and made the game-clinching save on Danny Briere's late penalty shot. And he's the guy who came up with huge save after huge save whereas Bobrovsky let in one — arguably two — soft, back-breaking goals. The man is a certified superstar in net, something the Flyers have lacked in what seems like forever. Ilya Bryzgalov was supposed to change all of that. Instead, he wasn't even on the ice in the league's marquee regular season spectacle.

However, as painful as the outcome was and as annoying as the reemergence of the annual Philadelphia goaltending controversy is, there was one particularly big bright spot for the Flyers in rookie Brayden Schenn.

Not only did Schenn score his first NHL goal and register his first point as a Flyer, but the lynchpin of the Mike Richards trade was arguably the best forward on the ice from the opening draw to the final horn.

Yes, Claude Giroux was his brilliant self, scoring an absolutely filthy goal, but when Jaromir Jagr left late in the first period with a groin strain, Giroux — like the Flyers' attack in general — wasn't quite the same.

However, Schenn shined all game long. Besides his goal, Schenn also provided something the Flyers have been lacking since Keith Primeau's career was cut short: excellent work in the faceoff circle. For the game, Schenn won 12 of 16 draws, and a couple of those losses came as a result of his wingers failing to get to the puck. It was nice to see someone dominate in the faceoff circle for a change.

Schenn also seemed to be everywhere, whether it was backchecking hard to negate a Ranger, throwing his weight around or making things happen in the offensive zone. In my opinion, he was the best skater on the ice period, playing without question his best game as a Flyer. In fact, Schenn was playing so well that I think Peter Laviolette did himself and his team a disservice by not playing him enough in the third period.

When Jagr went down, I think Schenn should have been given a little more ice time with Giroux given the way he was playing. It just seemed like he earned it. I was really impressed with the kid yesterday and can see why so many people are so high on him.

Of course, it was all for naught. After taking that 2-0 in the second behind goals by Schenn and Giroux, the complexion of the game changed when Mike Rupp scored just 30 seconds after Claude to cut the lead in half. From then on, the Rangers simply played smarter hockey, made fewer mistakes, blocked more shots and got outstanding play from Lundqvist.

Rupp improbably scored again, this time on a bad-angle shot that snuck between Bob's arm and body — an absolutely terrible goal to surrender, especially in a game of this magnitude. Just a few minutes later, Bobrovsky was left hung out to dry when Giroux lost his man, who turned out to be Brad Richards. Richards calmly buried what became the game-winner.

The thing that's most frustrating about the loss isn't that Lundqvist played out of his mind to stone the Flyers. Goaltenders the caliber of Henrik are going to steal games from time to time — that's why they're the best of the best. The most frustrating thing, at least to me, is that the difference came in the little things.

Overall, the Flyers had a nice game in the faceoff circle, but they couldn't win the crucial ones in the third period. Mental lapses in their own zone resulted in sloppy turnovers and the game-winning goal, where the Rangers barely turned the puck over at all. The Rangers' defensemen blocked shooting lanes all game long as the Flyers at times backed off and allowed the Rangers to shoot — not the best strategy when your goaltender is letting very save-able shots go through. That's what makes the loss so damn annoying. Yes, Lundqvist was great and certainly helped steal the show, but the little things made just as much of a difference.

The good news is the Flyers can correct those little things, at least to some degree. With so many youngsters on the team, they're bound to get better and make fewer mistakes as the season wears on. And as shaky as the goaltending has been at times, I think Ilya Bryzgalov has been taking a little more heat than he deserves.

No question about it, his numbers are terrible. But a lot of that was due to a bad start, and in his most recent struggles, he's been left hung out to dry quite a bit by his defense. Given his track record and the presumed better play by the defense after adjusting to life without Chris Pronger, you have to figure the Flyers are going to get better in their own zone, both in defense and goaltending.

Of course, none of that helps take the sting away from yesterday's hard-fought 3-2 loss, falling two more points behind the Rangers to make it a four-point cushion for New York instead of pulling even.

As for the Eagles and Penn State … I'll have more on their disastrous, embarrassing seasons at some point. Maybe. But to be perfectly honest, I'm more excited for the Duke-Temple game I'm attending tomorrow night than anything football-related right now.